Thursday, 28 November 2013

Simplicity's tightrope

Many critics (and thus poets) equate verbal fireworks with poetic risk-taking and depth. That might sometimes be right, but the opposite can also be true.

Syntactic simplicity is just as capable of ambition and is even more dangerous as its opposite number. Moreover, there's no gorgeous language to hide behind if the verse falls flat on its face. As a consequence, I hugely admire poets who write in such a way.

Hamish Whyte is a case in point, and his new HappenStance pamphlet, Hannah, are you listening? is an excellent example of such a kind of verse. Yes, there are poetic failures in the book, as in any collection. Yes, they are stripped naked for inspection. However, that also means that the successes are crystalline and memorable. One such instance is the ending to the title poem:

"...It's only a tiny chime
but I hope you hear it through ineluctable time."

The musical effect of the assonance is heightened by Whyte's semantic clarity. What's more, his poetic method means that strands of observation stand out, as in the opening lines from One of those lives:

"One of those lives
that's more a tone of voice
than a biography..."

I'll carry that turn of phrase with me for a long time. Poetry doesn't have to be flash to be memorable.

Hamish Whyte dares to walk simplicity's tightrope in this pamphlet. I love watching him do so, especially when he reaches the other side and I can't resist a huge, silent cheer. I very much recommend Hannah, are you listening? to any reader who cares to join me.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


In the light of a turbulent week for U.K. poetry, with far too many strops, spats and sulks going on via social media, it was incredibly refreshing to read Kim Moore's blog about having been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards and missing out on the prize itself. Her post was shot through with honesty and grace. You can read the piece in full here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

On the menu in St Andrews...

Just what will be on the menu in St Andrews on Friday 15th November?

Well, there will be a fair few tapas of this on toast...

Plus lots of carving and scoffing of this...

Washed down with glasses of this...

With readings from this alongside...

All of the above for less than a tenner. You can get hold of a ticket here!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Patricia Beer on middle age

My recent trip to the U.K. wasn't for a pleasant reason (a family funeral), but it did give me the chance to browse in my favourite secondhand bookshops. I love the thrill of leafing through poetry collections and often making discoveries.

One such case on this occasion was Patricia Beer's Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1988). Later research on the internet indicated that there was more verse from her after that date, but this book still gives a very decent introduction to her work.

Beer's poetry must have been very unfashionable in the eighties and nineties, and it probably still is in many respects. However, she's capable of lovely turns of phrase, coherent fusing of narrative and ideas, and some stunning endings. I was particularly taken with one piece, titled Middle Age, especially in the context of the motive for my visit. Here are two extracts from the beginning and the ending of the poem:

"Middle age at last declares itself
As the time when could-have-been
Is not wishful thinking any more...

...Everywhere I look it is the same,
The churchyard or the other side of the bed,
The one who is not lying there
Could have been."

The circularity is both satisfying and eye-opening. The reader is left to contemplate "who" "could have been" in their own lives. It's a terrific poem.

Thank you once again, secondhand bookshop.